Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.
In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.
In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.
So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.
The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.
She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.
So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.
A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?